In Memory of Someone I Never Met
About 6,000 years ago, so the Scriptures tell us, our first ancestors chose to put their trust in their own senses rather than in the counsel of the Creator Who made them. How else do we explain the statement that our first mother, upon examining the fruit of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise”? Why else would her husband, our first father, take the sample of the fruit she gave him and join her in a forbidden snack (Genesis 3:6-7)? In that moment their judgment trumped the word of the Almighty, and instead of inhaling the life He had breathed into them, they embraced the death He warned would follow their disregard of Him (Genesis 2:15-17). In a very real sense, by choosing to be their own gods, they separated themselves from the only Source of life and made a covenant with death.
This is the account I believe as to why this world is so messed up. Others may not believe it, but they can at least agree that we reap the bitter fruit of the bad choices made by our fathers and mothers extending back to time immemorial. Our agreement is cemented in shared grief and suffering when that bitter fruit robs us of a human package of abundant gifts just waiting to bless the world.
Such was Haruka Juliana Tsunemine Weiser.
Haruka and I never met during her brief sojourn in this life, yet as the father of young daughters, and in particular as the father of a dancer, I do know her in a way. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say I know her parents. They, like I and my wife, must have sacrificed greatly to give their daughter the best possible dance training. Those sacrifices go far beyond several pairs of expensive ballet shoes every year, endless hours of rehearsals, frantic weekends of dance competitions, painstaking and painful work preparing costumes, hair, and makeup, and the patience of Job to withstand the inevitable studio politics. Deep down, through it all, they, like us, must have wondered, “Is she really that good? Can she really dance well enough to make this a career?” Yet the answers to those questions really do not matter. What we know is that she is our little girl, that dance brings joy to her and to those who see her, and that even if she does not dance a single measure after she leaves our care, she will have been enriched and have enriched others just by the experience of her youth.
And then comes the day when we all realize that she really is that good.
For us it was when our Katie received a letter from the University of Texas at Austin announcing her acceptance into the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance program. For the Weiser family it must have been a similar occasion, for Haruka received the same kind of letter last year. So it was that one young lady from Oregon came to Texas to start her academic career in the very year our young dancer was completing hers.
The tragedy is that our daughter will finish her dance degree, but Haruka will never finish hers. An angry young man has made certain of that.
The Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Texas is a small community. In our interaction with the students and faculty over the last four years we have realized that they are actually a family. It seems especially so with the dancers. For that reason, when we received news through our daughter on Tuesday, April 5, that Haruka had not been seen since the previous Sunday evening, we knew not only that something had gone horribly wrong, but that this family of dancers had just entered the worst kind of ordeal. That ordeal was captured by Katie’s message to us, “Pray we find her. . . . She’s the sweetest and tiniest of humans.”
They did find her, but not soon enough. She never completed the walk from the fine arts building to her dormitory that Sunday evening. Someone was lying in wait for her. If the press reports are correct, his interest was in making his name known to the world. If only someone had intervened to tell him there are better ways to become famous than by stealing a young woman’s life.
This is where it becomes personal for me. Two years ago, my daughter lived in that same dorm where Haruka lived. She made that same short walk alone on many nights. On the night of Haruka’s disappearance, my daughter was ready to walk alone to her car, only to change her mind at the last moment and go instead with a group of friends.
It could have been her.
It was not her, but it could have been.
Which is why my grief is greatest for Haruka’s father and mother.
This is not the first time my children have lost friends. The sad state of humanity’s covenant with death is such that in their short lives they have experienced the violent separation of three companions still in their teenage years. Just as we grieved for them, we grieve for Haruka Weiser. We do not have to know them to grieve for them; it is enough to know that their passing has left gaping holes in the hearts of our daughters.
Such things should never be, and yet such things are inescapable. The loss of one pretty and gifted young Japanese-American dancer weighs little in the balance when compared to the multitudes of Christians and Yazidis beheaded and crucified by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted, raped, and killed by Boko Haram. But neither Haruka nor any of those multitudes whose names I will never know are merely statistics. Someone grieved for each one of them. Every single one was a daughter, a son, a father, a mother. Each of them had a smile that no one could duplicate. The voice of every one was sweet in the ears of a loved one.
And the loss of each is unbearable.
I cannot rightly say why suffering has not come to this part of Texas on the same scale as it has come to places like Syria. Such suffering was present here in ages past, when Spanish imperialism and its aftermath made Texas a battleground for two centuries. Even now the story told by the Tejano descendants of the Mission Indians whom the Spanish colonized and the Anglo-Texans subjugated is different from the story I would tell as a 21st century transplant. This, too, is something that is foreign to us, for the devil has been wildly successful in separating us from our past. Consequently, we do indeed repeat the mistakes of our fathers and mothers, which means that we are always surprised when times of peace and stability prove to be as transitory as times of violence and upheaval.
That is why it is crucial that we process our grief properly, honoring the memory of the dead while learning the lessons offered to us from their lives. It seems that the Department of Theater and Dance has taken the right steps to do just that in this seemingly senseless loss of Haruka Weiser.
Perhaps it is no accident that Haruka’s passing happened just days before the opening of Bodies and Souls, the spring 2016 offering of the Dance Repertory Theater. Haruka was part of the wardrobe crew for the show, and had taken part in a technical rehearsal just before she left the fine arts building that fateful Sunday night. The show was already on track to be a powerful performance. And then came a reason to make it more than just a show.
One advantage artists enjoy over most people is that they have a means of processing grief that can turn the gravest tragedy into a thing of beauty. That is what these dancers did with Bodies and Souls. Before April 5, they were talented technical performers; after that day they learned how to put their spirits into their work. Individually and as a group, these young people and their choreographers and faculty found ways to channel their grief and horror at Haruka’s death into a celebration of her life and an offering of hope for humanity.
The performances I witnessed in Bodies and Souls far surpassed those I had seen in four years of experience with the University of Texas at Austin. A case in point would be the work of Jun “Sunny” Shen. In the spring of 2015, my daughter danced in a piece he had choreographed based on his experience growing up in China during the chaotic aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. As an autobiographical piece, the work expressed Sunny’s experience and the emotions of an entire nation caught up in senseless upheaval. He was able to communicate enough of that to his American dancers that they conveyed the spirit of his work in ways superior to nearly every other piece I had seen up to that point. “The Wall”, Sunny’s offering for Bodies and Souls, continued with that theme, only this time the dancers did not need coaching to put their souls into the work. Even without understanding the historical and cultural connections, or the Chinese calligraphy projected on a screen behind them, the dancers seemed to have acquired an instinctive ability to make the work come alive with meaning of their own.
Such was the effect on every piece in the show. Haruka Weiser had been ripped from them, and thus each performer had a bleeding wound in their hearts that could only be dressed by dancing to the utmost in her honor. As one might expect, they danced with grief, with anger, with rage, and with sorrow. But they did not stop there. They danced as well with joy, with hope, with zeal, and with a nearly incongruous sense of peace. All of that and more was present in “Vigilia”, the piece choreographed by Alvin Rangel to sacred music by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rangel had no idea how appropriate his piece would be under the circumstances. As he describes it, “Vigilia” is “a tribute to those who have lost their lives migrating toward new lands in an attempt to find peace, freedom, and justice. They mobilize their bodies so their souls can be free.” He had in mind such recent tragedies as the deaths of refugees fleeing the war in Syria, but his choreography to Rachmaninoff’s rendition of Psalm 103 proved especially appropriate for remembering Haruka – so much so that a local news station featured it in their coverage of the opening night of Bodies and Souls. How could it be otherwise for a piece featuring a Psalm with the words, “The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed”?
The theme of justice carried throughout the show to the final piece, “(Re)Current Unrest”, choreographed by Charles O. Anderson. He described the piece with a series of questions:
What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain? An emotion suspended in time? Something dead which still seems to be alive, or, perhaps, something alive that we all wish to believe is dead?
Such questions invoke any number of uncomfortable realities, but as the dancers moved on the stage to images of the Civil Rights Movement and to shouts of “No justice, no peace!”, it was clear that the specific motivation was the violent deaths of black men like Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. I cannot say that I understand the rage expressed by the black community over such deaths. Tragic as they are, these men seemed to be operating in ways that generated reaction from lawful authorities. Then again, I did not grow up in a community where lawful authorities would automatically assume I was up to no good. Freddie, Michael, and Trayvon apparently did, and their questionable deaths provoked outrage born of generations of animosity and oppression. Such, I think, was what Anderson sought to convey in his piece, and it worked. Although I cannot understand the rage, I can through his and his dancers’ work understand that something is dreadfully wrong in this nation, and perhaps we should find ways to communicate so we can try to fix it.
Where it gets complicated is in the application of justice. The cries of “No justice, no peace!” apply just as much to Haruka Weiser as they do to Michael Brown. Justice for her could result in shedding the blood of a man not yet 20 years old – a man who is also a victim of society’s wrongs. How shall that society bring justice to him and to Haruka as well?
That is a question I cannot answer in this present reality. All I can do is rely on the promises of our Creator for a better reality one day, when humanity is at last restored to its pristine state. One day that will happen. On that day, the tragic sufferings of 6,000 years of our covenant with death will produce something greater, stronger, and more beautiful than the original, just as the tragic loss of Haruka Weiser is producing something beautiful and lasting. It is the hope and the destiny of a humanity created in the image of God, redeemed by the intervention of God, and restored by the justice of God tempered with His mercy and grace.
And this is the lesson for my daughter and for all the dancers of the world. She has wondered for a long time what she can contribute to this redemptive process overseen by our Creator. Perhaps she is contributing the greatest element of all.
She is reminding us what it is to be human.
Therefore thus saith the Lord God: “Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; he that believeth shall not make haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place. And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it. (Isaiah 28:16-18 KJ21)